Due in part to the fact that our school culture at Le Cordon Bleu is very student centered, and also just because it's really fun, each full-time chef instructor is charged with creating and managing a student based activity club. Being that we are a culinary school situated in the heart of one of the country's best and most ethnically diverse food cities, I decided that my club would focus on Chicago's huge selection of cuisines from around the world. I named it the LCB Ethnic Lunch Club, and every month I take a group of students to a different ethnic restaurant and introduce them to the cooking and culture of a far away country.
This past Friday afternoon, I met my students on the corner of Broadway and Argyle Streets, in an area on Chicago's north side densely packed with all manner of Southeast Asian markets, shops, and restaurants. The theme I had come up with for this meeting of the club centered on the common American idea of a "soup and sandwich" lunch, only with a French and Vietnamese twist to it.
We sat down in a restaurant that specializes in the Vietnamese dishes called Pho and Bahn Mi. Pho is a basically a huge bowl of rice noodles floating in a complex, aromatic beef broth, and it's garnished with your choice of items, ranging from tripe, flank steak, and sliced bull's penis, to bean sprouts, fresh green chilies, and fragrant herbs like cilantro and Thai basil. Bahn Mi is a baguette sandwich, filled with items like Vietnamese pork pate and headcheese, lemongrass and shrimp sausage, or crispy duck. It's then layered with pickled carrots and daikon radish, and spiked with slices of fresh green chilies and leaves of vibrant cilantro. There aren't many foods with flavor profiles more exciting than that!
The truly interesting thing about the Vietnamese soup and sandwich duo is that both are heavily influenced by the French occupation of Vietnam during the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The big bowl of fragrant and meat filled beef broth comes straight from the classic French dish known as Pot au Feu, which is basically a boiled beef dinner, and the baguette and pork based charcuterie in the Bahn Mi sandwich is just about as French as anything could be.
Learning about the cultural connections and history behind the food you eat is certainly fascinating, and some people may argue that it can make your meal more enjoyable...my students certainly seemed to love this particular version of "soup and a sandwich". Try it yourself and see what you think!